Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genre, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen; a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

Crystalis (NES)

The sprawling NES library has no shortage of high quality entries that, for one reason or other, were destined to remain one-offs. Whether due to lackluster sales, expired licenses, or simple lack of developer interest, the fact we never received proper follow-ups to brilliant works like The Guardian Legend and Shatterhand adds an unwelcome bittersweet edge to the fun. As far as I’m concerned, no sequel-less NES gem got a rawer deal than the 1990 action RPG Crystalis, or God Slayer: Haruka Tenkū no Sonata (“God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky”), as it’s known in Japan. Man, what a spectacular title; poetic and badass. I suppose the localization team didn’t want concerned parents phoning in complaints about Little Jimmy’s deicidal Nintender tape. Killjoys.

Crystalis’ ironclad reputation as a cult classic is odd in light of its origin: Legendary action game studio SNK. It actually hit Japanese shelves two weeks before the launch of the company’s bleeding edge Neo Geo platform. Even if SNK was one of the true greats of the 8 and 16-bit era, RPGs were hardly in their wheelhouse. Or were they? For a first foray into a brand new genre, Crystalis’ sheer polish, ambition, and confidence are breathtaking. It’s not a flawless game, but it sure carries itself like one.

Despite what the sword-wielding dude on the cover may lead you to believe, Crystalis isn’t set in the ancient past or some made-up fantasy land. No, this is post-nuclear Earth, ravaged by a massive conflict that brought humanity to the very brink of extinction on that fateful day of October 1st, 1997. Setting doomsday less than a decade out? That takes either an extreme lack of foresight or an equally extreme pessimism. In either case, a century has passed, during which savage mutants have overrun the irradiated wilderness. What’s left of human civilization has regressed to a medieval state and rediscovered the lost art of magic.

The actual plot centers on a floating tower created by survivors of the nuclear war. Its on-board computer was supposed to watch over the remaining people and prevent them from making the same mistakes again. A despot named Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are on the verge of seizing control of the tower, which will allow them to rule the entire planet unopposed through the combined might of dark wizardry and pre-war technology. You control a nameless hero automatically awakened from a cryogenic freeze, apparently as a fail-safe in the event of just such a crisis. Unfortunately, the defrosting process seems to have left you an amnesiac with no clue how to accomplish your mission. No matter! You’re given a magic sword by the village elder right off the bat and basically told to go forth, kill monsters, and let the details sort themselves out.

It’s a sweet setup to be sure, especially for a time when “kill the Dark Lord,” “save the trophy girl,” or both were still the three default RPG plots. I only wish I could say Crystalis delivered on it more fully. Apart from the opening and closing segments, there’s nothing that evokes the post-apocalypse genre specifically or science fiction in general. This isn’t Wasteland or Fallout, in other words. From the time you leave your sleep chamber until you reach the floating tower itself for the rather abrupt climax, Crystalis is every bit a conventional swords & sorcery exercise.

Thankfully, that exercise is a superb one. Many have cited Crystalis as the best action RPG on the NES and, as much as I adore Zelda II, I’m inclined to agree. The graphics, while not the flashiest we’d ever see from the hardware, are colorful and well-detailed. The relatively large sprites for the hero and his many enemies do a fine job showcasing how far the state of NES art had advance in the four years since the original Zelda. The music is better still. Stirring, mysterious, and eerie by turns, this soundtrack sears itself into the player’s consciousness. It’d been decades since I last picked up the game and I still knew every note by heart.

Of course, great graphics and music alone do not a great game make. Exploration, combat, and character progression form the foundation of any action RPG. If they don’t work to draw you in from minute-to-minute, the game doesn’t work. Crystalis’ navigation and combat utilize the standard 3/4 overhead perspective, with your hero able to move about freely (and rather quickly) in eight directions, as well as jump by equipping a specific pair of enchanted boots. So far, so good. All battling revolves around use of the four magic swords you acquire throughout your travels, each associated with an element: Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder. You do get to combine all four swords at the end, not to form Captain Planet, but rather the super-sword Crystalis. Sadly, the Crystalis sword itself is made available  exclusively for the absurdly easy and unsatisfying final boss fight, so it’s merely a tease.

Beyond running up to baddies and mashing B to shank them repeatedly, every sword has three different ranged magic attacks achieved by holding down the button for a set amount of time and then releasing it when needed. You have access to a sword’s first level charge attack from the get-go, with the other two requiring accessory items to enable. These higher level sword powers have non-combat applications, too, blasting away some walls and otherwise creating paths to new areas.

This ready access to a wide selection of projectile attacks is cool. It also has the side benefit of partially mitigating the game’s biggest weakness: Wonky hit detection. Getting close enough to enemies to reliably take them out with regular sword thrusts is trickier than it should be, owing to the hero’s tendency to take hits from things you’ll swear weren’t anywhere near to touching him. You often can’t trust your eyes in this regard, making a series of long-distance potshots the safest bet in most cases. This approach is still not perfect. Certain enemy types are completely immune to one or more swords, which can lead to tons of tedious gear swapping or simply running straight past foes instead of engaging with them because you can’t be bothered to futz around with menu screens at the moment.

In addition to your swords, which are really the central hook here, you get an unremarkable selection of armor, shields, and healing consumables. Rounding things out are a handful of spells that allow you to recover health, cure negative status effects, fast travel between town, and so on. You’ll occasionally need to use your magic on NPC townsfolk in order to solve a puzzle and advance the story; a pretty thoughtful touch that didn’t factor into many other RPGs of the era.

So the story is interesting, the presentation lush, and the core gameplay generally fun, albeit with some non-trivial annoyances. What truly elevates Crystalis above and beyond its peers on the system, though, are its pitch-perfect pacing and ultra-smooth sense of progression. This game moves like nobody’s business. There’s no point during the compact eight hour run time when it feels like your hero or his journey is stagnating. You’re always zooming off to the next town or dungeon, always stumbling onto a nifty new sword attack or spell, always being pulled forward by the natural flow of the quest. If more RPGs could pull off this one elegant trick…well, I might not devote 90% of my gaming time to platformers and shooters. As it is, Crystalis and the almighty Chrono Trigger are among the precious few that make it look easy.

Inevitably, the dawn of the high end Neo Geo and its ability to bring the pure arcade experience home shifted SNK’s focus away from experimental RPGs and back to their coin-op roots. The debut of a little game called Street Fighter II in 1991 further cemented this change of direction, leading to Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and the legion of other competitive fighters that define their legacy to this day in the eyes of many. True to its lofty name, the Neo Geo ushered in a whole new world. If Crystalis taught us one thing, however, it’s that no new world, no matter how magical, is birthed without pain.

Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (Mega Drive)

Whoa, what’s this? A 16-bit action RPG? From Sega, no less? How have I never heard about this one until just recently? Probably because 1992’s Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (literally, and rather redundantly, “Fighting King: King Colossus”) is a text-heavy Japan-exclusive release. Not even the 2006 English fan translation by M.I.J.E.T., professional as it is, seems to have been able to drum up much awareness of it in the West. It’s our loss. King Colossus is good fun while it lasts with the caveat that its strict linear progression and single-minded action focus may leave some fans of the genre wanting more.

A major selling point for King Colossus in Japan was its director, manga artist Makoto Ogino. He’s best-known for his long-running Kujaku Ō (“Peacock King”) series. Dude’s all about the kings, I guess. Kujaku Ō has received multiple video game adaptations of its own over the years, some of which (SpellCaster, Mystic Defender) would see release outside Japan. Do actually you need to know anything about Kujaku Ō to understand King Colossus? No. The latter seems to have been a wholly original, self-contained project. I’m just dropping some trivia here for my fellow oddballs who enjoy following these little creative breadcrumb trails.

King Colossus casts the player as a strapping orphan lad (with no specific default name) who’s apparently been raised in a shack in the middle of the woods by a grumpy old hermit. A routine errand to retrieve a sword owned by said hermit from a nearby blacksmith brings our sheltered protagonist into conflict with the cult of the Dark God Gryuud, whose twisted servants have seized control of the land and are ruling it with the proverbial iron fist. Anyone remotely acquainted with basic fantasy clichés can see where this is going. Could it be that our hero has a special destiny related to his shrouded origins? One that makes him the only man capable of sorting out this whole Gryuud situation? The game doesn’t go out of its way to show fans of the genre anything they haven’t seen before and the broad strokes narrative feels perfunctory at best. One point in King Colossus’ favor, at least for me, is that its world has a gritty pulp swords and sorcery edge to it. We get dark gods, human sacrifice, pit fighting, and plenty of other trappings that would be right at home in a classic Conan yarn. You won’t find any cutesy monsters or wacky anime hijinks here.

If the storytelling favors style over substance, the gameplay goes to even greater extremes by remorselessly paring away every shred of the standard overhead action RPG formula that isn’t beating up on bad guys and leveling up. There’s no overworld to explore, no towns, no currency to collect or shops to spend it in, and the gear you’ll acquire is limited to weapons, armor, stat-boosting magic jewelry, and healing herbs. King Colossus teases you with glimpses of a world map on occasion, but this is more akin to the stylized level diagrams that appear between stages in Castlevania or Ghosts ‘n Goblins than a real navigation tool. Instead of gathering clues and forging your own path, you’ll be ushered directly from dungeon to dungeon with none of that pesky thinking required.

The dungeons themselves don’t offer much in the way of puzzles and are primarily “hack your way to the boss” affairs with a side of basic platforming. At least the combat itself is fairly well-realized. You’re able to bring the pain with an assortment of swords, spears, axes, chains, crossbows, and magic staves. Each weapon type has its own distinct feel and is quite useful against the enemy horde, with one glaring exception: Swords. The swords are bloody awful in this game. They have virtually no reach, which makes getting close enough to land a hit with one a significant, yet completely unnecessary risk. This flaw would be easier to overlook altogether if the game’s plot didn’t make such a big deal out of one specific magic sword with a special connection to the main character’s backstory. You go on a quest to get it, another quest to power it up, and you’re still likely to let it sit in your inventory unused. If I wanted to be a real highfalutin’ game critic for once, I could totally call ludonarrative dissonance on this one. In the interest of not asphyxiating on my own farts, however, I’ll stick with declaring it a missed opportunity.

There’s a small selection of magic at your command, too; five spells in all. You have a couple of direct damage dealers, an energy shield, a utilitarian warp back to the start of the current dungeon, and, most importantly, Time Stop. Time Stop makes for an auto-win against pretty much anything, allowing you to pile hit after hit on the defenseless opposition. It even works on bosses! Take it from me: Whenever you’re given access to a time stopping power that works in boss fights (Kick Master, Astyanax), you save all your magic points for that if you know what’s good for you. Strangely, you have access to all five of your powers from the very start of the game. While you do earn more magic points as you level-up, making it possible to cast spells more frequently, you’ll never learn an entirely new one. Instead, your character growth is purely numeric, which is another missed opportunity in my book. Fighting your way through dungeons feels about the same at level twenty as it does at level one.

Those last four paragraphs may read like one huge extended windup before I finally come down hard on King Colossus and tell you that it’s just not worth your time. Hardly! Sure, the story is trite and the RPG gameplay has been simplified to the utmost. Thankfully, though, the core hack and slash dungeon delving still makes for a decent enough ride on its own and the game’s brisk pacing suits it well. After all, the obvious upside to never having to wonder where to go or what to do next is that you’re effectively guaranteed to always be making steady progress. You can even save at any time, a rare luxury in a console game of the era. Basically, King Colossus knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t overstay its welcome. As previously stated, it also gets major bonus points from me for managing to look and sound every bit the part of a grim saga from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself. The soundtrack in particular strikes just the right balance of eldritch mystery and pulse-pounding danger, proving (as did Golden Axe, Alisia Dragoon, and Gauntlet IV) that the Mega Drive sound chip could be as effective a delivery vehicle for blood and thunder fantasy anthems as it was for the heavy metal of MUSHA or the techno of Streets of Rage 2.

So King Colossus earns a moderate recommendation. It won’t exactly strain your brain, but it is a game that knows what’s best in life: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their pixels!

Soul Blazer (Super Nintendo)

The soul still burns!

I’m finally heading back to the Quintet well. It’s been far too long. I guess I had so much fun in 2017, playing through both ActRaiser games and the triumph that is Terranigma, that I instinctively hit the brakes before I could plow through their entire Super Nintendo catalog. There’s a sharply limited quantity of this stuff available, after all. Best to make it last.

My subject today is the studio’s second game, 1992’s Soul Blazer. Despite coming out hot on the heels of their highly successful action-platformer/God sim hybrid ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is not a sequel. Rather, it’s the first entry in a loose series that also includes Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. Fans have dubbed these the Gaia Trilogy. Or the Soul Blazer Trilogy. Or the Quintet Trilogy. As if all these names weren’t confusing enough, some also point to a fourth release, The Granstream Saga for PlayStation, as a “spiritual successor” and the final entry in what’s more properly regarded as a quadrology.

Each game casts the player as a divine intermediary in the latest chapter of an endless conflict between two Manichean deities representing light and darkness. Much of the appeal for fans is based on the distinctive scenario design and writing of Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. There’s a strong focus on religion, death, and rebirth throughout the series. Miyazaki’s overarching thesis, or at least my best good faith take on it, seems to be the need for us humans to reject hubris and greed in favor of humble compassion for our fellow living things before our unchecked ignorance drives us to destroy both ourselves and our world. It was the unflinching way Quintet presented this material; their willingness to confront their audience with somber notions clearly meant to resonate beyond the games’ surface melodrama, that was so electrifying nearly thirty years ago and has since secured all three titles perennial cult classic status.

All this isn’t to say that the Gaia Trilogy is dour or depressing. There’s no shortage of fast action and tongue-in-cheek moments. It’s not even all that preachy, as there’s a remarkable degree of subtlety and restraint on display in light of the simplistic writing and brute force localization practices characteristic of the period. What these games are, however, is affecting. Haunting, even. They get under your skin in the best possible way.

Soul Blazer casts the player as an angelic being known as Blazer (or Blader in the Japanese original). Don’t feel too wedded to this moniker, though. You’re free to re-name him whatever you like. Taking human form, Blazer is tasked by The Master (aka God) with nothing less than restoring life to the world. It seem that Magridd, power-hungry ruler of the Freil Empire, coerced a brilliant scientist named Dr. Leo into creating a machine capable of summoning Deathtoll, “the King of Evil.” Against all odds, this proved to be a poor decision and Deathtoll promptly imprisoned the souls of the empire’s inhabitants in monster lairs, leaving the land deserted. It’s almost like you can’t trust the King of Evil or something.

Blazer’s mission is presented as a mechanically basic overhead view action-RPG of the sort that will be instantly accessible to anyone who’s ever played an old school Legend of Zelda before. He can move about in the four cardinal directions, strafe with the shoulder buttons, swing his sword with B, and fire off whichever magic spell is currently equipped by pressing Y. It’s an adequate setup for the hours of hack-and-slash ahead, but only just. Those that end up playing the series out of order won’t find nearly as much to sink their teeth into here compared to Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. Soul Blazer’s solitary stab at innovation in the combat department largely falls flat. Spells don’t actually emanate from Blazer himself. Instead, they’re fired out of a glowing sphere that orbits him at all times. While this does look cool, it’s a right pain in the ass to aim sometimes, considering that the sphere is constantly spinning with no way to lock it in place. This is proof positive that different isn’t always good and I generally ignored the magic and stuck to the simple, effective sword for the majority of my playthrough.

So the action here isn’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, its consequences are. Soul Blazer has a simple, powerful core gameplay cycle wherein every Gauntlet-style monster generator destroyed actually grows the game world by freeing the soul of the NPC trapped inside. That soul could belong to a human, an animal, or even a plant and each one will typically advance your quest in some way, large or small. Being an angel with the ability to communicate with anything living means that Blazer has no problem chatting up dogs, goats, fish, and even the occasional tree or flower. Visiting a new area for the first time and finding it completely empty, only to then gradually build it back up into a thriving settlement one inhabitant at a time as you slash your way through the local dungeon is immensely satisfying. I’d even call it addictive. If you’re not careful, the drive to take out just a few more monster lairs in order to see what sort of character pops out of each can get the better of you. Then, before you know it, hours have passed and you’re rushing off to the next area to do it all over again!

This theme of your hero’s actions somehow resurrecting a ruined world echoes throughout the trilogy. It would also inspire other developers, as seen in Level-5’s Dark Cloud series. Even in its embryonic form here, it’s a potent example of the positive feedback loop in game design. The action drives the narrative in about the most literal sense possible. Simultaneously, that narrative urges the player to dive right back into the action at every turn. The result is an experience more like its predecessor ActRaiser than meets the eye. On paper, each contains no spectacular gameplay per se, but the almost uncannily graceful interactions of their disparate elements induces a flow state in players that renders both much more engaging than the sums of their parts.

It’s entirely fair to deem this inaugural entry the weakest of the Gaia Trilogy. It’s also a mistake to dismiss it as such. Sure, the graphics have that flat early Super Nintendo look to them, the sound effects were lifted directly from ActRaiser, and the characterization of Blazer and the rest of the cast is pretty minimal compared to what would come later. Illusion of Gaia and (especially) Terranigma manage to nail most of the same beats with the added benefits of deeper combat, more confident and ambitious storytelling, and glossier coats of paint. This is all to be expected, of course, as Miyazaki and the rest of Quintet continually honed their craft over the console’s run. Regardless, Soul Blazer is a brilliantly conceived and paced adventure with a brooding, apocalyptic atmosphere that will satisfy genre veterans craving something more than another “save the princess” errand. Play it before its sequels, if possible, but play it. It’s a fascinating game in its own right as well as an auspicious start to a saga like no other.

Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I thought I’d left Transylvania behind with the Halloween season. Wrong. I’ve arrived back here on business: To destroy forever the curse of the evil count, Dracula. For some reason, I just feel like now is the time to revisit what may be the single most divisive game in the entire NES library. Maybe it’s because I finally feel like my game reviewing chops are up to tackling a title that’s been called a masterpiece, an all-time classic, a pioneering action-RPG, a mindless grindfest, a needlessly cryptic waste of time, and the black sheep of the entire Castlevania series. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Either/or.

Welcome to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest or Dracula II: Noroi no Fūin (“Dracula II: Seal of the Curse”) as it was called upon its initial 1987 release for the Famicom Disk System. It was converted to cartridge for export to North America the following year and the two versions are largely the same, the exceptions being some seriously dodgy localization work, the loss of the disk format’s built-in save functionality (adequately replaced by 16-character passwords), and some very welcome improvements to the soundtrack made possible by the NES cartridge’s larger memory capacity.

I’ll be reviewing the North American version here, since it’s the one I grew up with. Yes, not only did I have this one as a kid, it was actually the first Castlevania game I ever played. Ironic, considering that it’s also the sole entry from the franchise’s first decade that attempted to deliver anything other than a relatively straightforward action-platforming experience. While not representative of what the series as a whole was about at the time, it was very much the sort of game I was looking for in 1988. Other non-linear action titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II ate up a disproportionate amount of my gaming time during those bygone elementary school years and turn-based RPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy would soon join the rotation. While I’m all about the fast-paced, high stakes action romps these days, the less patient person I was thirty years back appreciated that games like Simon’s Quest rarely imposed any sort of final game over or other significant penalties for failure. Another key consideration was that I didn’t have anywhere near the staggering variety of software to choose from that I do today. A new game I can complete in single evening is a boon to me now, but it would have been a disaster back when birthdays and Christmases were the only guaranteed opportunities to expand my meager library of cartridges. Adventure games like Simon’s Quest had legs.

Simon’s Quest put players back in the boots of Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire and hero of the original Castlevania and its many retellings. In fact, this is the only one out of the five total sequels starring Simon to actually continue his story rather than being a remake or re-imagining of his debut outing. The story this time goes that Dracula has been destroyed, but the vanquished vamp has somehow managed to lay a potent curse on our boy Simon from beyond the grave. Unless he can gather five parts of the count’s body (each of which is hidden in a different monster-infested mansion somewhere in the Transylvanian countryside), return the pieces to the ruins of the castle where the first battle took place, and use them to resurrect his arch-enemy and defeat him a second time, Simon is doomed to weaken and die in short order.

So does this one still hold up all these years later? Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls, because the truth of the matter of far from that simple. Simon’s Quest is one hauntingly beautiful, sublimely atmospheric cluster of dull design decisions.

First, the good. Noriyasu Togakushi’s pixel art and Kenichi Matsubara’s music are both superb and I consider Simon’s Quest to be right up there with Nintendo’s own Metroid as a successful early attempt to convey a real sense of isolation and dread through savvy use of limited hardware. Of course, no Castlevania is a true horror game in the sense of being out to disturb players on a deep emotional level or even frighten them out of their wits. Konami wouldn’t explore that option until 1999 with Silent Hill. Instead, Simon’s Quest is a delightfully spooky experience, much like the classic Universal and Hammer monster movies that inspired it. An oppressive gloom lingers over the blasted moors, tangled forests, dank swamps, and crumbling graveyards that make up Belmont’s Transylvania. The addition of a day and night cycle to the game world adds to this spooky ambiance and also impacts the gameplay. Enemies are more durable by night and the shops and other buildings in town are all shuttered. After all these years, the world of Castlevania II remains one hell of a mesmerizing place to get yourself lost for a few hours.

It’s only when you start to dig into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll be doing during that time that the many cracks in the game’s foundation become apparent. For starters, it doesn’t seem to value its players’ time very highly. You’ll need to make sure to collect plenty of the hearts dropped by defeated enemies, as these function as both experience points that go toward boosting Simon’s maximum health and currency for buying items from merchants. Unlike in Metroid or Rygar, for example, where all key items and upgrades are acquired through exploration alone, Simon is also required to pay out at regular intervals if he wants to advance. A primary example of this are the oak stakes you need to purchase inside the mansions in order to retrieve Dracula’s body parts from the otherwise unbreakable orbs encasing them. These stakes are single-use items, so that’s a mandatory fifty heart expenditure per mansion. By the time you reach the stake merchant, you’ll either have the necessary cash or be forced to spend a few minutes walking back and forth whipping the same respawning skeletons over and over to earn it. Neither of these two alternatives is fun or interesting in any way. This entire business of grinding hearts to buy gear is pure busywork; a sort of time tax artificially imposed on the player in an effort to pad the gameplay time out. Even the day/night cycle I praised above contributes to this at times. Imagine you’ve been patiently saving up 200 hearts for a whip upgrade only to have night fall just when you’re about to reach the town. Hope you enjoy camping out waiting for a shop to open like an unemployed game console fanboy on launch day. The Legend of Zelda handled this aspect much better by allowing Link to visit shops to purchase helpful items while never actually requiring him to do so in order to complete his quest.

We also have to consider the infamously cryptic puzzles and poor quality translation. There are a few instances where the player is expected to perform some very specific non-intuitive actions to progress and the in-game advice related to them is simply too mangled to serve its intended purpose. This means players who haven’t been tipped off about these potential bottlenecks in advance will almost certainly be stymied. I used good old Nintendo Power magazine back in the day. Thankfully, ready Internet access means you don’t need a magazine subscription to enjoy the game anymore. You can even download fan-made re-translation hacks if you’re serious about not cheating by consulting a walkthrough. Still, no game should ever require outside assistance and the official English language release of Simon’s Quest absolutely does.

All of these tedious and confusing elements could be forgiven if only the core gameplay was up to par with the other Castlevania titles. It never comes close, however, and this is Castlevania II’s fatal flaw for me: It’s an action-RPG built around some truly pathetic action. Simon himself controls much like he did in his first outing, barring a few minor tweaks like a slightly faster attack speed and the tendency to fall off staircases if he takes a hit while climbing. Fair enough. The problem is that shockingly little care seems to have been taken to insure the level layouts and enemy placement provide a fitting challenge for our whip-cracking hero. In the first game and most of the sequels that take their cues from it, every platform, every pitfall, and every monster that appears feels meticulously planned to pose a specific challenge to the player. The level design here consists primarily of flat stretches of ground sparsely-populated with listless enemies that rarely pose much of a threat due to their slow movement and simple patterns. The classic medusa head baddies, for example, don’t even fly in their characteristic sine wave formations and instead drift ever so slowly toward Simon in a straight line, practically begging to be swatted out of the sky. The levels also rarely bother to combine the combat and platforming together to build richer composite challenges for the player. Leaping over a hole or two with nothing else around to complicate matters isn’t exactly compelling stuff. The jokes Simon’s Quest has the nerve to serve up as bosses merit particular scorn, too. There are only three of them in the entire game, including Dracula himself, and all can be easily defeated on the first try with a bare minimum of thought or effort. Most mansions don’t have any boss to fight at all! That whole routine with the oak stakes I mentioned above? That’s the climax waiting for you at the end of most of them. Thrilling.

Advocates for Simon’s Quest often claim it’s similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in that it gets picked on merely for being different from its more successful predecessor. Nonsense. What betrays this false equivalence is Zelda II’s action, which is some of the most exciting and addictive to be found anywhere in the NES library. Zelda II’s level and enemy design actually help rather than hinder it. Link’s movement and swordplay are both exhilarating and the areas he traverses are formulated to constantly push players to focus and hone their skills as they explore. Although it still has its share of cryptic riddles, it’s overall an 8-bit action-RPG done right and the difference between the two games is, fittingly enough, day and night. So while it may be easiest to illustrate some of Castlevania II’s more glaring faults by comparing it to the original, simply using something like Zelda II instead is sufficient to show that those faults are still present in any case.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a eerie, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action game that I can’t really recommend to anyone who isn’t a compulsive Castlevania completionist or looking to relive a cherished part of their childhood. If you really love the promise it represents, it did serve as the inspiration for at least eight future Castlevania releases with RPG elements (starting with 1997’s Symphony of the Night) and any one of them would make for a much better time. On the NES specifically, I’d direct you toward either of the Zelda titles, Crystalis, Rygar, Metroid, The Battle of Olympus, or Willow. As much as I wanted to play my beloved contrarian card on this one, I’d honestly rather hit Deborah Cliff with my head than slog through this quest again.

Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. This…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers which require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowning irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests which require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways in which it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history.

Sometimes dead is better.